The UK UAV community is being cautioned to give more priority to configuration control during the development of new systems to ensure the safety of unmanned aviation.
Alec Ayliffe, capability leader for UAV test and evaluation at Qinetiq, says that the UK unmanned systems industry has a good safety record, but more work remains to be done to ensure compliance with best practices in the aviation sector.
He says: “At one level it is quite easy as a UAV test guy to feel that we are being persecuted, in that the standards that we are being asked to meet are higher. But I think that is not true because the standards for aviation as a whole are higher.”
Delivering the Royal Aeronautical Society’s flight test lecture in London last week, Ayliffe said: “We are developing a UAV industry and in that respect we have a much more rigorous approach to aircraft safety and I think that is a good thing. The great thing as well is that, touch wood, we have a very safe industry. Not all of our aircraft are reliable. Quite often they fall out of the sky, but they do so safely and I think that is very important to maintain – to maintain the culture.
“All the other discipline that we have learnt the hard way in aviation – that has got to be applied to the UAV industry and I think it is. I think we are going to continue as a safe industry.”
Qinetiq’s close involvement with all levels of the UK UAV industry has shown that configuration control compliance issues are widespread. “It has been one of the major problems that we had when we first started to look at smaller companies. Very few companies had decent configuration control.”
Issues have also been encountered in major firms: “You might get a very large company, internationally known, a design-approved organisation, but their UAV enthusiasts were allowed to do their own thing, and so when we went in to do an audit you find chaos. No drawing trees, no nothing. No master record index. You just can’t provide any assurance of design quality or build quality in that situation.”
Absence of effective configuration data has led to requirements for an “imaginative approach to safety” during air vehicle flights tests managed by Qinetiq. “We usually end up with a flight-termination system. The answer is that design quality and test quality depend on configuration control.”